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Why You Should Learn Dah di dah dit Di dah dah
by Don Keith N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
I know. Morse code's old news. Passé. Fuhgeddaboutit! With a plethora (whatever a plethora is) of wonderful, modern digital modes, and with good, solid SSB, FM, and even a smidgen (whatever a smidgen is) of AM-with-carrier to use to communicate, why would anyone want to learn the code now that you don't have to do so in order to earn a ham license?
I maintain there are at least ten good reasons for everyone—new ham or OT—to get out the code tapes, limber up the keying hand, build an oscillator, and learn the squeaks and squawks with which Samuel F.B. Morse and Alfred Vail blessed us way back in the 1840s. Here are my ten. Others may be able to add more and I hope they will.
- As a means of getting the message through, the code has stood the test of time. In one form or another, the code has been in use for over160 years. It must have something going for it! Even now, with no requirement for even knowing a dit from a dah to become a licensed ham, there are plenty of stations to talk with, and contest activity on CW is stronger than ever.
- In marginal band conditions, CW is still far more reliable than many other modes. Some of the digital modes are as good or better, I grant you, but for a basic station, the code is still there when most everything else is unreadable. On CW, the bands open up earlier and stay open for DX longer. You can add a good half hour to either side of the gray line. A DX station that is unreadable on SSB may be perfectly workable on CW. For me, that alone is enough reason to be proficient in using Morse.
- In that same vein, if you are enjoying a nice QSO with someone and the band suddenly takes a dip, you can punch the rig's “CW” button and give the other OM a decent “73,” ending the chat on a good note.
- CW is legal anywhere on any amateur band on which you are licensed to operate. And on 30 meters—a darn fine band for some really interesting propagation—voice transmissions are NOT permitted.
- Like to chase sporadic-E, tropospheric ducting, or other fun propagation on 10 meters or VHF/UHF? One way to tell if the bands are open is through beacon stations. I am not aware of any beacon stations that use any kind of voice identification or location information. They are almost all in the CW portion of the various bands. They use Mr. Morse's dits and dahs. How else will you know where they are or what their grid square is? Is 6 meters open to Europe or are you hearing a beacon a half mile down the road? They sound the same if you can't “break the code.”
- DX! Do I need to spell it out? DX-peditions don't always use RTTY or PSK31. They almost always do CW. Because of the reasons mentioned in (2) above, and because contacts are made and completed quicker in many cases on CW than on phone, your odds of working that DX are greater. Of course, there seems to be far more stations calling the DX on SSB, too, so that in itself raises your odds of nabbing the guy on CW. Sure, you can learn just enough code to recognize your call and “599,” but can you be sure that station you worked was the one you saw on the DX cluster if you can't read his call sign? And what if he gives QSL info, switches the split from what was spotted, or moves to another frequency or band and lets everyone know—in CW? Happens all the time. DX station on 20 meters says, “QSY 40M 7007 UP 3,” yet guys keep calling him on the old frequency for half an hour after he disappears.
- So, the only operating you do is through VHF or UHF repeaters, using FM. You don't need to know no stinkin' code! But what if you hear a distant repeater? That beepity-beep you hear on most repeaters is its ID…in CW. How can you possibly know which repeater it is or where it is located, beyond making a guess? Ever travel? Take your rig with you? How will you know which repeater you are hitting or hearing? Maybe you can find it in the directory or maybe not. In urban areas, you may be in range of several repeaters on the same pair—each with a different access tone—so which tone do you use if you can't tell which repeater it is when it identifies?
- Simplicity. Nothing exotic about turning on and off a carrier. If you take your radio camping, on a cruise, on a business trip, it is much simpler and more effective to use CW. Add the element of QRP and you can operate about anywhere, from a bicycle to a bass boat, with basic battery power and compromise antenna. And a key, of course.
- It takes less spectrum. More stations can comfortably occupy the same slice of a band when everyone is on CW rather than SSB or FM. And that's by a factor of about 13—150 hertz for CW compared to more than 2000 hertz for SSB in many cases. It is easier to filter out adjacent channel interference and still maintain intelligibility, too.
- It's just plain fun! I have tried many modes and I enjoy them all (less digital since I'm pounding on a keyboard about ten hours a day and don't want to even see one when I get to the shack!), but I keep coming back to the joy and simplicity of Morse. There is a certain element of knowing something not everybody else knows, too. It's like our own double-top-secret language. And you meet the nicest people there. I would have hated to have missed all the great QSOs I have had down through the years just because I decided I couldn't memorize and recognize 26 letters, 10 numbers and a few pro-signs!
I understand that some people have greater aptitude for learning the code than others. It is more a chore than a pleasure for some. But here are a few tips that might make it less drudgery and more fun, based on my experience teaching many people the silly stuff down through the years:
Learn the code by sound, NOT by dots and dashes. “A” is “di-dah,” NOT “dot dash.” “B” is “dah-di-di-dit,” NOT “dash dot dot dot.” Learn how each character SOUNDS, not how many dashes and dots there are and in what order. That is especially true of the numbers. There is a temptation to count the numbers of dits and dahs. Your mind works much better if “6” is instantly “dah-di-di-di-dit,” not a dash and four dots.
Learn the easy ones first—E, T, I, M—and quickly start making words. Soon “the” (and other common words) will no longer be three Morse characters but a single sound.
If possible, have the characters you are listening to sent at higher speed but with pauses in between. That is, have code sent at three words per minute (fifteen characters in a minute…one every four seconds or so) but the individual characters sent as if everything was at 12 or 15 words per minute. As you speed up, the individual characters will still sound the same except the spaces between each will be shorter.
Receive the code at a speed just a bit faster than you can comfortably copy. Just like with exercise, push yourself and you will get quicker, longer lasting results.
Don't get flustered if you can't write down every single character on paper—“solid copy.” Do the best you can. If you try to go back and fill in gaps or linger too long, you miss a whole bunch of other characters.
When you are able to understand the code faster than you are able to write it down, start taking notes and do not try to jot down every character. You cannot write down every word of human speech in a conversation, either, unless you are a court reporter using a special machine! Those who copy fast code are doing it in their heads, not on paper.
In your head, convert everything you see—road signs, soup can labels, letters on the TV screen—to Morse code. Try to get the word “sent” in your head (or out loud if you are alone or don't mind being thought a lunatic) before you pass the sign or the commercial is off the TV.
Work with a friend or partner who is also learning CW. It makes it more fun, and especially if you compete to see who is the first to get to 5 WPM and each additional benchmark.
Practice. Practice! PRACTICE! There are few things you can learn without repetition. A good golf swing? A foreign language? How to play a musical instrument? How to type? You cannot devote five minutes a week to any worthy learning activity and expect to be successful. Set aside practice time each day. There is a great boost to self-esteem when you prove to yourself that you can do something that others perceive to be difficult—or dang near impossible!
There are plenty of good sources of code to copy. W1AW sends practice every day on multiple frequencies, and when you get good, you can copy official bulletins sent via CW, too. Visit www.arrl.org or see QST for times and frequencies. Or tune to the low end of 40 or 20 meters or anywhere on 30 meters. With today's electronic keyers, most code is well sent and easy to copy. You will find speeds from tediously slow to a tinkly whir…like a cricket on crack!
I believe there are two primary reasons people do not want to learn Morse code. One is they do not see the need or have any particular interest, and especially now that the requirement for licensing is gone. I hope my reasons in this article will be some impetus for you to give it a try. If not, that is okay, too, but you are missing some fun.
The other reason is that people simply think they will never be able to make sense out of the stuff. That they lack whatever brain cell is needed to make “di-di-dit” into “S.” That is not true. Anyone can learn the code and be proficient in its use. Anyone! It is a mindset that defeats some folks before they even try. If you are convinced you are the lone exception, there is nothing I can do to change your mind. But if you take the attitude that “Heck, I'm not going to let this stuff beat me!” then you are well on your way to increasing your enjoyment of the hobby.
I hope you will. I would love to meet you on 30 meters one night.
Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See www.donkeith.com or www.n4kc.com for more info.